At the beginning of the 2000 season, Barry Bonds was in a place familiar to most thirty-five-year-old athletes. It looked as if his body was beginning to crumble. The 1999 season had been particularly rough on him. He reported to spring training and immediately began suffering from back spasms. Before the first month of the season was over, Bonds was in a cast, scheduled to miss two and a half months rehabilitating from elbow surgery. He suffered through his worst season in San Francisco. His power numbers were good, 34 home runs and a .617 slugging percentage, yet he hit just .262 and saw his on-base percentage dip below .400 for the first time since the eighties. More than any other statistic, Barry Bonds not being on the field was the most telling. He had played in a mere 102 games, his lowest since 1989, when he was in his fourth season, still batting lead-off for Pittsburgh, and had yet to become the feared Barry Bonds. He had been durable throughout his career, playing in 888 of 908 possible games as a member of the Giants before undergoing knee and wrist surgery in 1999. In six seasons with the Giants, Bonds had never been on the disabled list, and yet was shelved twice in 1999. Bonds rebounded in 2000 to play in 143 games and hit a career-high 49 home runs.
During those two seasons, there was something about Bonds that was remarkably different. He was gigantic. During the first day of spring training in 1999, Charlie Hayes walked by Bonds and did a double take. Hayes strolled past a group of reporters and said, "Did you see my man? He was huge." Bonds said he feared what age would do to his body, and began a weight-training program to stay fit. For a player who was always muscular but never massive, the Bonds transformation was consistent with the era. Mark McGwire in 1999 dwarfed his Oakland self. In Chicago, the Sammy Sosa who was lean and strong and could run and had an arm like Clemente had disappeared, replaced by a thick, blocky slugger. He looked like a different person.
The 2001 season was special from the very start. On Opening Day, Bonds hit a solo home run off San Diego's Woody Williams, who would later intentionally walk him. For the next five years, these two categories, home runs and intentional walks, would stand as the primary evidence of his greatness. Ten days later, Bonds hit another solo shot against the Padres. It was the first of six straight games in which he would homer and the beginning of a stretch in which he would hit 13 home runs in twenty games. In May, he would enjoy another streak of six straight games with a home run, which included a three-game series in Atlanta in which he hit 6 home runs. In the middle game of that series, Bonds hit 3 home runs off three different pitchers. By the end of May, Bonds had 27 home runs.
The Atlanta series was an important moment, as the light bulb went on for the rest of the league: Bonds was on pace to surpass McGwire. In a way it wasn't surprisinghe was, after all, the best player in the game, and for a player of his caliber, anything was possible. There was also a feeling of magic surrounding Bonds. Earlier in the season he hit the 500th home run of his career and it was clear to his teammates that Bonds had begun that same march that Mark McGwire embarked upon three years earlier, on which it seemed each home run passed another of the game's icons. Roger Clemens was in the process of doing the same with the Yankees in the American League, each strikeout reviving another name from the game's past.
As the home runs continued, a new phenomenon began to engulf Bonds: He seemed warmer, more acceptable. In Atlanta, he received a standing ovation for hitting a home run. In other cities, as his intentional walk totals not only increased but began to take on a ridiculous quality (he would finish the season with the fifth-highest single-season total of all time), the fans would boo the home team for walking Bonds. On June 23, Bonds hit his 39th home run, which, despite a subsequent fourteen-game dry spell, would be the most ever at the All-Star break. At one point, he was on pace to hit 86 home runs, but he was not alone. Sosa was on pace to hit 60 home runs for the third time in four seasons, and Luis Gonzalez of Arizona, the Giants' rival in the National League West that year, who had never hit more than 27 in a season, had 35 home runs at the break.
The cold stretch came. At one point in July, Bonds had hit three home runs in his last twenty-five games, making his pursuit of McGwire once more suspenseful. In August, he warmed again, hitting homers virtually every other day. On August 23, he hit a pinch-hit home run in the top of the ninth to beat Montreal. It was his 55th homer of the year. He was on a pace for 70, but perhaps more. In 1998, McGwire had 55 homers on Sept. 1. Bonds was ahead of that pace by nine days.
As his onslaught continued, Bonds began to appear friendlier, more open to enjoying a season that seemed to be shaping up to be a historic one. The month of September would be remarkable, for Bonds was in the process of doing what McGwire thought could not be done. The era was also reaching a saturation point, for it looked as if both Sammy Sosa and Luis Gonzalez would also reach 60 homers. In no previous season had three players hit 60 home runs.
When the September 11 attacks postponed baseball for eight days, a sober nation unsure of the appropriate course tended to view Bonds gingerly. Diversion was important, heightening baseball's significance to a grieving public, but so was mourning out of respect. There had been talk that Bud Selig needed to cancel the season, an idea that did not gain a great deal of momentum. Two days before the attacks, Bonds became the third player since 1998 to pass Roger Maris's mark of 61 homers by hitting three homers in Colorado, the first coming in his first at-bat against the Rockies' Scott Elarton. He now had 63 home runs, Maris had been topped five times in four seasons, and Bonds had entered into sacred space.
The games resumed and Bonds crept closer to the record, but with an odd haze. Nobody knew quiet how to act. The energy toward the home run record was already odd for a variety of reasons. Part of it was that Bonds was just one of three players on pace to reach 60 home runs that season. Another part was that 1998 had been just three years prior. It was if the public had yet to recover from that magical season. What McGwire had done was incredible, but Bonds was making it look easy. Also, Bonds had become more approachable, but only by degrees. But most of all, the terrorist attacks removed the importance from Bonds and the home run record.
Bonds's public rehabilitation took place during a three-game series in Houston to begin October. After an uneven season dominated by Bonds, but marked by bitter late losses, the Giants found themselves two games behind Arizona entering Houston. With six games left in the season, Bonds had 69 home runs. The Astros, also in a pennant race, were expected to pitch to Bonds, except in game-critical situations. Both teams were fighting for the playoffs and any manager who allowed a player with 69 home runs to win a game deserved to get fired. What the Astros did over the next three days, however, offended the sensibilities of even the least sentimental of baseball men.
The Astros chose not to pitch to Bonds regardless of the situation, despite the fact that the Giants won every game comfortably. Even with the Giants leading 8-1 in the sixth inning of the third game, the Astros intentionally walked Bonds. Altogether, the Astros walked Bonds eight times in his 15 trips to the plate, three of them intentional, and once hit him with a pitch.
The Houston crowd was livid, their anger eclipsed only by that of the Giants players. In the dugout, Dusty Baker was fuming. He had played against Houston manager Larry Dierker three decades earlier. A pitcher, Dierker was a confrontational, hard thrower. Larry Dierker and his fastball never backed down from a challenge. Before the series began, Baker said he did not believe Dierker would do anything but honor the codes of the game. Now, Dierker was purposely walking Bonds when the game situation did not call for it. Including the Giants' last game against the Padres in September (two walks and a hit-by-pitch), Bonds had seen forty-six pitches in his last four games and thirty-seven of them were balls.
At one point during the increasingly irritating weekend, Bonds's ten-year-old daughter Shikari held up a sign that read, "Please pitch to my daddy." It was a national statement, one that held a special poignancy for a nation in need of a nice story. The irony was hardly lost on anyone in baseball that in the weeks following September 11, when the national pastime stood at center stage with the opportunity to revive the spirits of a bowed country, it was Barry Bonds, of all people, standing at the plate, his family by his side.
In the ninth inning of the final game of the three-game series in Houston, Bonds faced rookie Wilfredo Rodriguez, a Venezuelan left-hander who had been in the big leagues for three weeks. He had made his first appearance on September 21 against the Chicago Cubs, giving up four runs and a homer to Fred McGriff in just two innings of work.
Now he faced Bonds. Rodriguez didn't know at the time, but in Bonds the twenty-two-year old would be facing the last batter of his major-league career. Rodriguez threw him three pitches. The first was a ninety-six-mile-an-hour fastball that Bonds, anxious from having barely swung the bat in four days, flailed at and missed. Rodriguez missed with his next pitch. On the third, Bonds turned it around, parking the ball in the seats in right field. He had tied McGwire.
In the Giants' final three games, at home in San Francisco against the Dodgers, Bonds made short work of McGwire's record. On the first night, he homered in his first two at-bats for the record. On the last day of the season, Bonds blasted number 73 off Steve Sparks.
And so it was done. Babe Ruth's record stood for thirty-four years. Roger Maris's 61 was the standard for thirty-seven more, but Mark McGwire's stood for just three seasons. On the third, Barry Bonds demolished him. If the baseball public had seemed uneven in its response to Bonds, inside the game there was no question that Bonds had entered mythic territory. In baseball, a hierarchy exists, especially among superstars, and Bonds had separated himself from all but the super-elite. Bonds had never hit 50 home runs in a season before, and now he was the undisputed home run champion. In the process, he hit his 500th home run, broke Babe Ruth's record for walks in a season, and distanced himself from every other player in the game. Mark McGwire had been celebrated, but Bonds's season changed the way he was viewed throughout the game. He had become invincible. If McGwire and Sosa were dominant players who could still be pitched to, Bonds had seemingly mastered the game. Players, coaches, and executives would marvel at how slow the game appeared to be for him. He was no longer merely a great player, but a phenomenon. No player in the history of baseball, not Ruth, Mays, or Aaron, would ever see fewer pitches or be walked more over the coming years than Barry Bonds.
Reggie Jackson was conflicted, for he was convinced that what Bonds had accomplished, while spectacular, spoke more for the era he played in than the distance between him and the greats who had never hit 50 homers in a year. Sammy Sosa had hit 64 home runs in 2001, becoming the first player in history to hit 60 in three seasons. Ironically, he never won the home run title in any of those years. Luis Gonzalez finished the season with 57, but his Diamondbacks beat out the Giants for the division and, by beating the Yankees in an emotional, memorable World Series played in the shadow of 9/11, Gonzalez enjoyed the World Championship Bonds so craved. Still, Reggie Jackson was pleased that the record was now held by a player who was not one-dimensional, like McGwire.
"Why? Because he's a great player and the other guy [McGwire] wasn't," Jackson said. "I think Griffey, at his best, has a better arm and is a better fielder, but it's the two of them ahead of the field. I was at a signing with Pete Rose the other day and we got to talking about Bonds and the home runs and all, and Pete said, 'At least this time, the record will belong to an all-around player.'"
The 2001 season endeared Barry Bonds to the public, bringing him closer as his legend ascended. He was named Most Valuable Player for the fourth time and filed for free agency. There had never been a player in baseball history who had not only hit 73 home runs, driven in 137 runs, and walked 177 times, but coming off of that season was available to all thirty teams. Bonds was thirty-seven years old, was in peak physical condition, and was the single greatest offensive threat since Ruth. Yet something bizarre happened: no one bid on him. The reasons were vague and the story disappeared quickly. Murray Chass in the New York Times reported that his agent, Scott Boras, had sought a contract so dauntingsomewhere in the range of five years at $105 millionthat teams were scared off. The Giants were convinced that Bonds did not want to play for another team, and other teams concurred, unwilling to drive up the price for a player who did not want to change teams. He was a Giant and his legacy would be much stronger in San Francisco than if he had played out his final years as a designated hitter in the American League. He remained with the Giants at a salary of $18 million per season for four years.
Barry Bonds had become a completely encompassing figure who had seemingly outlived all of his demons. He had once been hounded for being a notoriously poor playoff performer, hitting well below his established level in five first-round exits with Pittsburgh and San Francisco, but erased those years of ignominy in 2002. That year, he got within four outs of winning the World Series before Anaheim, down 5-1 in the seventh inning of Game Six, mounted a remarkable comeback. The Giants, dispirited after losing the night before, were listless in Game Seven, losing it and the Series to Anaheim. But while the Angels were the eventual champions, Barry Bonds had electrified the nation during the playoffs, hitting eight home runs, including four in the World Series to go with a .471 World Series batting average. In Game Two of the Series, he homered with two outs in the ninth inning off the Angels' flamethrowing closer Troy Percival in an unforgetable confrontation of power against power. He was now an implausible baseball player, virtually impossible to pitch to. To Jeff Brantley, Bonds had perfected his mastery of the strike zone through self discipline. "When I played, you could get Barry out. I had good success against him," Brantley recalled. "You had to keep moving the ball inside on his hands, progressively more in the at-bat. Barry would get frustrated and pop up that inside pitch. Now, he's so good and sees the ball so well that he won't even swing at that ball that used to make him so angry. They say every hitter has a cold spot, a spot in the strike zone that they can't reach. Bonds has a little box, and if you miss, forget it."
Bonds won the NL MVP for a second straight year in 2002, and then again in 2003, and 2004. He hit his 500th and 600th home runs in consecutive seasons. He had avenged the black players who never had the opportunity to play big league baseball by replacing Ruth's records on what seemed like a nightly basis. Bonds had promised his godfather that one day he would pass him, and in April 2004 he did just that, surpassing Willie Mays's immortal home run total of 660. Later that season, on September 18, he hit his 700th home run. Only Ruth and Aaron remained.
When the decade began, there was still debate about who was the best player in baseball, Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr., but injuries would limit Griffey to a total of 63 home runs from 2001 to 2004 while Bonds would average 52 per season over the same span. There was no longer any question as to which player was better. By the end of the 2004 season, Bonds had 200 more home runs than Griffey. There would be no more comparisons, no more shared magazine covers.
Barry Bonds was supposed to be deified, but instead was stalked by the belief that he was a steroid user. In San Francisco, there were rumors that Bonds's hat size had grown two sizes. As he separated himself from every active player, he spent as much time dodging increasingly invasive questions about BALCO and what substances he had used as he did rewriting the record books. If it had appeared that 2001 had finally broken down the barriers between himself and a baseball world that wanted to claim him, the combination of the BALCO investigation, which followed him daily, and his remarkable, impossible transformation, both physically and on the field of play, only increased the tension in an already contentious relationship.
The baseball fraternity protected him emptily. He was so good that no drug could help him be so far beyond the rest of his peers, they said. He defended himself by his regimen. His workouts were legendary. He was one of the oldest, and most accomplished players in his clubhouse, yet he worked out harder and longer than the rest. On hot spring-training days in Arizona, after the rest of the club had finished, there was Bonds, on the field, sweat-drenched. His workouts were similar to those of Jerry Rice, the iconic wide receiver. Even players twenty years his junior could not keep up with him. He used two trainers, Greg Anderson and Harvey Shields, and defied anyone to match his dedication.
The fact was that Bonds had become a different player after his injury-plagued 1999 season. Early in 2000, he affiliated himself with his childhood friend Anderson and BALCO. Up to that point, Bonds had played fourteen seasons, hit .288, and averaged roughly 32 home runs and 33 stolen bases. He was always discerning at the plate, averaging more than 100 walks over his career. Although he was consistently among the league leaders in intentional walks, his average of 20 per season was nothing out of the ordinary. Pitchers still challenged him.
In the five years following, from age thirty-five to forty, Bonds rivaled only Babe Ruth. In addition to averaging 52 home runs, his batting average skyrocketed 50 points to .339. This despite the fact that he rarely saw a hittable pitch, three times setting the single-season record for walks and averaging 61 intentional walks when the previous single-season high was Willie McCovey's 45. Bonds was walked more times intentionally over those five years than any player in the history of the game had been in an entire career. In his 73-homer year of 2001, nearly half of his 156 hits were home runs. He slugged .675 or better in all five seasons. Only Ruth had at least four consecutive seasons of slugging percentages .675 or better. As he approached forty, Bonds had become more dominant than he was at twenty-eight.
His greatness only increased the rumors of steroid use. Every top-five single-season total Bonds had posted home runs, walks, intentional walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, and times on baseall came after 2000 when he was thirty-six years old. To the Crusaders, this just wasn't possible without some form of performance enhancement. Bonds admitted to using creatine, but denied using anabolic steroids. He seemed to defy the pattern of injury other steroid suspects. Still, the circumstantial evidence of his play was scrutinized because of the revelations in the BALCO case, each story more damning than the last. Greg Anderson had been in the major league clubhouse only because of his connection to Bonds, and now the Feds had Anderson admitting he had administered steroids and human growth hormone to Giants players Armando Rios, Bobby Estalella, and Benito Santiago as well as Oakland's Jason Giambi, his brother Jeremy, and Randy Velarde.The Feds had Anderson on tape talking about the undetectable steroids Bonds was taking at the time. Anderson also said that Bonds would be tipped off at least a week in advance of a league-administered drug test. When the Chronicle reported Bonds's testimony that he unwittingly used undetectable steroids, Bonds came off as defiant, unconcerned. He was combative with the government prosecutors, at one point saying, "Whatever, dude," after contending he had no idea what substances he had been given by BALCO. If baseball wanted the BALCO scandal to be put to rest, Bonds's defiance made that unlikely. He had used steroids and was unrepentant about it.
The question of why a player as great as Barry Bonds had chosen to risk his reputation and his accomplishments was not easily to answer. To some, his quest to overtake Willie Mays's home run total may have been a factor, for as of 1999 he looked to be on pace to fall just short of his godfather. To others, Bonds was angered by the attention being given players who were not at his level but had used the home run to eclipse him. To Jon Heyman, it was a fundamental desire to be the best at all costs. "He's the greatest player I've ever seen. Would he be if he hadn't used steroids? I don't know. Maybe I'd be saying he was one of the greatest, instead of the greatest." To Mike Lupica, Bonds knew his greatness would not have received the type of credit he deserved in the new era of juiced-up sluggers. "He didn't need steroids to make the Hall of Fame," Lupica said. "He needed them to be immortal."
In the end, baseball was Barry Bonds. He loomed too large, took up too much space. His enormity overshadowed every other player in the game and forced the game to look at itself in a way no player of his stature had. His legend grew as it could only with Bonds, with equal amounts of admiration and loathing, amazement and suspicion, awe and a feeling so deep and primal as to border on hatred. He would always be something of a mystery, and as the game struggled with the task of having to rebuild itself once more, this time in the trust department instead of on the balance sheet, what remained most confounding was why. If Jose Canseco used steroids because he so doubted his talents that he never believed he would make the majors without them, and Jason Giambi was seduced by the opportunity to be great, the question of why Barry Bonds had used steroids left many people in baseball speechless. He was already a Hall of Fame player long before he had ever hit 73 home runs, long before steroids were even part of the baseball dialogue, and yet he saw enough reward to risk a baseball reputation that had already been sealed. Joe Torre's words echoed: This game is something you borrow for the short time you play it. And yet the greatest player of his time, maybe of all time, had accomplished so much while leaving the sports itself with too many questions to answer.
Howard Bryant is ">a columnist for the Boston Herald. This is his second book.